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St. Jude Classic offers up final test before US Open

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — TPC Southwind looks nothing like Chambers Bay, leaving the St. Jude Classic to offer only that final chance at honing a swing or putting stroke under the mental pressure of competition.

That’s more than enough for the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Graeme McDowell at a course where par is a good score.

“The fact that I’m going to be out trying to focus on each shot, try to control my misses, hit good shots, make birdies and really try to get in contention, and that type of mental preparation can only really occur in competition,” Mickelson said Wednesday after his practice round. “It’s hard to replicate at home.”

Mickelson is back here for the fifth time after finishing tied for second in 2013 and tied for 11th last year. Winless since the 2013 British Open, he tied for second at the Masters and tied for fourth at the Wells Fargo Championship. But he tied for 65th at Memorial last week and spent Monday and Tuesday trying to work on his game.

“I feel like it’s not far away, so we’ll see where it goes …,” Mickelson said. “I’m going to try to get a little momentum heading into the U.S. Open next week, and hopefully I’ll have a good tournament this week.”

Steven Bowditch, who won the Byron Nelson two weeks ago, and Harris English are among those here hoping to play their way into the U.S. Open with possibly four spots available for those in the top 60 of the world rankings Sunday night.

Johnson, who won here in 2012, is the highest-ranked player at No. 7 in the world followed by Mickelson (No. 19) and Billy Horschel (20).

“I feel like the last couple years when I’ve played here and I’ve gone in to play at Merion, it’s been a big help, getting used to that kind of mindset,” Horschel said. “I’m looking forward to a great week and then hopefully going to the U.S. Open and continuing the momentum that I carry from there.”

McDowell added this event, sponsored by FedEx, late to help him prepare for the U.S. Open. After finishing in the top 11 in his final three tournaments in 2014, McDowell has struggled in 2015 missing two cuts with his best finish a tie for 26th at the Heritage. This course may be very different from Chambers Bay, but McDowell wants to be more competitive.

“Going into a major championship, obviously preparing and playing the golf course and having your game plan together is key, but being competitively sharp, feeling confident that you are playing well, those are just as important,” McDowell said.

This is the ninth straight year this tournament has been slotted the week before the U.S. Open, and the course has played so much tougher since a renovation in 2004 cut par by a stroke to 70. The course was lengthened to 7,239 yards, and Bentgrass greens were replaced by Champion Bermuda.

Ben Crane is back defending his title for his 10th year at this event. Similar to a year ago, Crane has been working to improve his game and still is looking for his first Top 25 finish of the year after managing to avoid hip surgery. Crane is hoping for similar results after playing so well here in 2014.

He also can’t wait to play with the TPC Southwind in the best shape he’s ever seen.

“They’ve done something to take a lot of the grain away, which I’m OK with either way, but they’ve done it and it’s very light on the green,” Crane said. “The greens are as good greens as we have putted all year. I would put these at or better than Augusta National. I mean these greens are incredible right now. Everything, fairways are in great shape. … It’s something to see.”

Nobody has won a PGA Tour event, then followed up by winning the U.S. Open. McDowell only wants to play well after enjoying being with his family the past few months.

“If winning here this week meant that I wasn’t going to perform next week, you know I might take that right now,” said the 2010 U.S. Open champ. “I’m really looking at it as a two-week journey trying to play as well as I can this week, then go over there and dissect the course and try and win another U.S. Open trophy.”

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